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A Man of Compassion

Guatemala’s Vice President Eduardo Stein has placed human rights at the heart of his government’s administration.


by Stephanie Gerard Rowlands (WCAS93)

On July 18, 2005, Guatemala’s Vice President Eduardo Stein somberly addressed a crowd of indigenous Mayans who stood before him in their colorful embroidered clothing in the small mountain hamlet of Plan de Sánchez, about 50 miles north of Guatemala City.

“We are here today in the name of the State of Guatemala to ask forgiveness from all the victims of the armed conflict,” Stein (GC70, 79) told the gathered crowd after 23 years of governmental silence and denial of the massacre of an estimated 200 Maya Achi men, women and children in Plan de Sánchez. “Those who were assassinated are here with us today. We are asking them for forgiveness.

“As the representative of government, I give this apology and our firm promise to drive the investigations of what occurred, to make known what happened, and to identify, to submit to justice and to sanction the individuals involved in these crimes.”


It was market day on July 18, 1982, when Guatemalan soldiers and paramilitary forces surrounded and stormed the village. They herded the men, women, children and elders to an open area, pushed the young women into houses and raped them, then showered them all with grenades and machine gun spray. They then doused the remains with gasoline and burned the bodies. The next day, the soldiers forced the survivors to dig several mass graves and bury their relatives.

The massacre took place at the height of Guatemala’s bloody civil war, during the 18-month dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, who directed a brutal scorched-earth policy against mostly Mayan campesinos, or subsistence farmers, to weed out support for leftist guerillas.

In 2004 the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights had ordered the Guatemalan government to make an apology to the survivors and relatives of the victims (as well as pay them $7.9 [U.S.] million in damages). But the court did not specify where and by whom the apology should be made.

It was Stein who insisted the ceremony take place in Plan de Sánchez and that he would speak on behalf of the government. Ironically, he made the apology for a governmental regime that he himself had opposed and that had exiled him and his family.

Although this was a decision of the court, Eduardo Stein made this apology in an absolutely voluntary way,” notes Frank LaRue of Guatemala’s Presidential Human Rights Commission.


Colleagues describe Stein as a straight-talking independent politician and diplomat who has devoted his career to emphasizing regional approaches to socioeconomic and political issues in Central America. A widely respected negotiator, he spent 11 years as a technical adviser to the Central American peace process that resulted in peace agreements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

But it was in Guatemala, Stein’s homeland, that his diplomacy skills were most severely tested during his attempts as Guatemala’s foreign minister to help end the country’s brutal internal war in which more than 200,000 citizens (mostly of Mayan ancestry) were killed. Stein is credited with helping broker the 1996 Peace Accords in Guatemala that ended the 36-year civil war in which leftist guerillas fought government and paramilitary forces to demand social justice for the country’s indigenous people.

“During my term as a foreign minister, we managed to get the guerillas back to the negotiating table, get the United Nations back, change the rules of engagement, finish the negotiations and sign the Peace Accords without which no other positive agendas were feasible,” Stein says.

Stein was convinced that a cease-fire among the combatants would not last unless the military elements of the agreement were accompanied by other political, social and economic elements that guaranteed a change in the conditions that triggered the conflict.

“In my country there were severe political impediments to the participation of groups that had leftist or socialist inclinations. They were outlawed by the constitution and were being physically persecuted,” Stein explained in a 2002 interview with Reality Check, a newsletter published by the Fund for Peace. “We had to create a more open political climate and new rules of participation to allow anyone to make a bid for an electoral post at all levels, regardless of the candidate’s political views.”

Convincing parties to return to the negotiating table is one of Stein’s premier skills. Colleagues marvel at his ability to keep dialogue going.

“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” concludes long-time adviser Edmundo Urrutia, describing a June 2004 fiscal meeting between Vice President Stein and the Collective Social Organization, an alliance of various Guatemalan social movements. “Seven times the leaders were about to leave, and he was able to convince them to return to the table,” says Urrutia. “It was hard. There was anger, dissatisfaction. But Stein was on their same level. There wasn’t distance between him and the people. In the end, it was a good day for everybody.”

“He knows how to make clear very important political issues,” emphasizes Rosa Tock, Stein’s former public policy adviser. “And he knows how to put them in the words of the common people. He’s a down-to-earth person, a very approachable, sensitive man.”

It was Stein’s approachability and sensitivity that conservative 2003 presidential candidate Oscar Berger needed on his ticket. Berger, the former centrist mayor of Guatemala City who had lost the previous presidential election, needed an alliance with leftist parties to beat the left-wing candidate, Álvaro Colom, and the right-wing former military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt. A member of one of the wealthy landowning families in Guatemala, Berger needed a man of the people as his running mate. Stein fit the bill.

And for himself, Stein needed to be involved with carrying out the Guatemalan peace accords. In the years following his term as foreign minister, Stein believed that the reforms of the peace accords “were tackled in a very uneven way.” This unfinished business and three weeks of “arm-twisting” from Berger finally convinced Stein to be his running mate. The mix of conservative and social reform in Berger and Stein’s Gran Alianza Nacional party resounded in the hearts of many Guatemalans. In December 2003 Berger and Stein beat Colom in a runoff.

“For a country such as Guatemala, plurality is mandatory,” Stein says. He brought several indigenous people into the Berger government, including Rosalina Tuyuck, the head of the National Reparations Commission assigned to the task of compensating the victims of the civil war.

“Guatemala is a very unjust and unequal country. … It is [one of] the most inequitable countries where a chosen few control most of the resources … and a large majority of the population doesn’t have access to basic services,” Stein explains. “How do we tip the balance in a constructive and in a politically governable way?” he asks. “That’s the conundrum. One way to do it is through transparency and accountability.

“The most important thing this government could accomplish is to recover the democratic control of the public institutions, if there ever was one,” Stein says. “Part of what went wrong in decades past is that there was no accountability to anybody, the separation of powers in the executive, legislative and justice systems was a true mockery.”


Stein’s concern for people’s social welfare is firmly rooted in his upbringing. Although Stein’s heritage includes both Judaism and Catholicism, he was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic high school. Upon graduation, Stein entered a Jesuit seminary in Quito, Ecuador. But while studying there Stein witnessed the impact radio had on common people. He marveled at how the powerful medium could reach so many, so he left the seminary to pursue communications.

Stein transferred to St. Louis University in Missouri and majored in philosophy. Then he attended Northwestern, where he earned a master’s degree and his doctorate in communication. He credits his studies at Northwestern with helping to shape his broad understanding of communications.

After Northwestern he returned to Central America and served as the director of the Department of Letters and Social Communication at the Centroamericana University in San Salvador, El Salvador. At the time El Salvador was in chaos. Coups, juntas, death squads and paramilitary guerrilla violence pockmarked the 1970s and culminated in civil war in the ’80s.

After the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980, bombs exploded at the university, and “hostile signals toward [Stein’s] wife and kids” made living in El Salvador “unbearable.” Stein could not return to Guatemala because of the similar political situation.

So Stein, his wife and daughters escaped to Panama, where they stayed for the next 15 years. There he became a foreign adviser to Panamanian President Arístides Royo and became involved in the decision-making process of government. He also got connected to the regional agenda of Central America.

This regional involvement led to his position with the Action Committee for Economic and Social Development Aid for Central America (CADESCA). As the coordinator of projects committed to the economic and social development of Central America and later as the executive director, Stein worked to connect Latin America with European economic aid.

Stein served as the regional project coordinator for the International Organization for Migration from 1994 to 1996. He was appointed foreign minister of Guatemala in 1996 and served until 2000. He and President Berger are in the third year of their four-year term in office.

The road to equality, justice and economic development is a long one in Guatemala. “A hard-learned lesson, which we are still learning,” noted Stein in the Reality Check interview, “is that some issues cannot be resolved in a few months or even a few years.

“The peace accord on indigenous people’s rights is probably one of the most ambitious, complex and difficult to honor of all the agreements in the peace accords,” concludes Stein. “The separation of the races and racism itself are extremely complicated in my country and will take many years to resolve.”

But Stein is firmly committed to seeing the peace accords in Guatemala through as well as addressing issues of inequality and poverty throughout Central America, whether in public office or as a dedicated peacemaker.

Stephanie Gerard Rowlands (WCAS93) is a freelance writer who recently lived in Guatemala, where her husband served in the U.S. Foreign Service.

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Rigoberta Menchú, right, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, sings the national anthem next to Guatemala
Rigoberta Menchú, right, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, sings the national anthem next to Guatemala's Vice President Eduardo Stein during a December 2005 ceremony to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended the 36-year civil war. AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd